The Games
Author:Ted Kosmatka

Chapter TWO

Evan Chandler leaned his significant mass against the wall near the window, picking sores into his face with absentminded fingers. The fluorescent lights hummed softly in the background, providing a subtle soundtrack to the visions in his head. His eyes focused inward on some distant dimly lit horizon. For Evan, that horizon had been growing ever darker over the last several months.

A sudden clap of thunder brought his consciousness swimming to the surface like some strange, stunted leviathan. With an expression approaching surprise, he looked out into the desolation of the early evening. Rain dribbled its way down the glass. God, he hated storms.

He shifted off the wall and trudged over to his desk, where he eased his weight onto a loudly wailing swivel chair. His desk was a sprawling mountain range of papers, folders, and empty foam food containers. He considered the room before him. Stacks of computer digilogs stood at ease like drowsy sentinels against one wall. Several dead brown plants drooped from their pots in various stages of decomposition. He cast his muddied hazel eyes around the chaos, looking for his laptop amid the clutter. Eventually, he gave up. It would be easier to get another than to sift through the various geological layers of refuse he had accumulated.

He knew there was something he was supposed to do today, someone he was supposed to see, but he couldn’t quite remember. Looking around the room, he experienced a painful moment of lucidity, saw vividly where he was going, what he was slipping into. It scared him, but the feeling faded. It always did.

A knock on the door startled him, and his fat rolls shimmied as he jerked his chin up from his chest. He’d faded out again. Lost time. Outside the window he saw the storm had passed. Good. “What do you want?” he called.

A young woman opened the door and leaned her head through. He recognized her face, though he couldn’t quite place her name. Sarah, or Susan, or something like that. Was it his secretary? Did he even have a secretary anymore? He couldn’t remember.

“It’s getting late, Dr. Chandler,” the woman said. “The rest of the team and I are going to call it a day, I think.”

Team? “Okay.”

She shut the door softly. Curious, he got to his feet and shuffled over to where she had been standing. He swung the door wide and stepped out into the construction chamber. A dozen people dressed in tech cleans were gathering up their equipment. In the center of the room stood a huge monolithic plug booth, half finished. The electronics gleamed under the spotlights. He remembered now. Oh, yes, he remembered.

He picked his way slowly between the piles of electronic equipment and stepped up to the booth. He ran his palm across the smooth surface of the faceplate. It was cool to the touch, smooth and soothing. He felt better. The riptide in his head ebbed ever so slightly.

“How much longer?” he asked the woman as she closed the lid on her pack.

“Should be finished in two or three days.”

He didn’t bother to respond. His knee creaked audibly under his weight as he bent to inspect the optronic connections leading from the mainframe. He twisled the cable between his fingers, tugging the connection slightly. Nice and tight. You couldn’t be too careful, after all. This was his conduit. His church. This booth would help him talk to God.

EVAN WAS into the third bite of his burger when he heard the knock on his office door. Anger surged. They knew he wasn’t to be disturbed during lunch. A moment later, just as he brought the burger back up to his mouth, the knock came again.

“What is it?” he snapped.

The door swung inward, and Mr. Baskov limped through.

“Good morning, Dr. Chandler.”

Evan nodded. “Mr. Baskov.”

“May I sit?” Baskov asked.

“Go ahead, just clear off a chair.”

Baskov leaned his cane against the arm of a leather chair, picked up a haphazard pile of papers from the cushion, and placed them on the floor.

“To what do I owe the honor of this unexpected visit?” Evan asked through a squishy muffle of burger, bun, and tomato. A runnel of juice split his chin and deposited another stain on his filthy shirt.

“There was a birth,” Mr. Baskov said. “Do you recall the work you did for us on the Helix project?”

“Of course I remember the project.” Evan swallowed and wiped his hands with a napkin. “It’s the only thing I’ve been allowed to use the Brannin on. Why does everyone around here treat me like I can’t remember my own name?”

“Good. There has been concern, you see, about the work done with the Brannin.”

“Well, I’ve had some concerns of my own. I’m concerned that I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my life on the design of a computer I’m not being allowed to use.”

“I have nothing to do with that. The concern—”

“And I want to know why it’s called the Brannin, anyway. Why isn’t it called the Chandler? I designed it.” His hamburger made a loud bong as he slammed the last oily chunk into the wastebasket near his desk. “Nobody else can even use it.”

“There are investors who decide such things. A name is a commodity, like any other.”

“My name could be a commodity.”

“Once again, I can’t really speak to that circumstance, but I have come today to ask you an important question. Do you think you could answer a question for me, Dr. Chandler?”

“These research institutes think that just because you are under contract with them, they have the right to claim and name. So what if the research was done at the Brannin Institute? I could have gone anywhere. They were begging for me. Harvard, C-tech, the Mid—”

“Dr. Chandler!” Baskov’s tone stopped Evan’s rant. “Why does the Helix project newborn have wings?”

Evan’s expression changed. He leaned back in his chair, lacing his pudgy fingers behind his head. “Wings, really?”

“Yes. It also has shiny black skin and prehensile thumbs. But let’s start with the wings, okay?”

“I don’t know why you’re asking me; I don’t know.”

“That’s what Silas said. You both can’t use the same excuse.”

“Who’s Silas?”

Baskov shook his head in disbelief. “He’s the head of Helix Development. You’ve met him two or three times. How can you not know about the wings?”

“The guys at Helix fed me the directives. They were the ones who should have gone over them with a fine-tooth comb. If there is a problem with the product, then there must have been a problem with one of the directives.”

“Silas said he had nothing to do with the design. He’s putting the responsibility on your shoulders.”

“Do I look like a geneticist to you? I design virtual-reality computers, not live meats.”

“And it was your computer that developed the designs.”

“They think just because they have you under contract, they can tell you what projects to work on. It’s my computer. What gives them the right?”

Baskov took a deep breath, and his eyes gathered force beneath his shaggy eyebrows. He leaned forward in a conspiratorial manner, and when finally he spoke, his voice was soft and measured. “This isn’t a game, retard. I don’t care what kind of genius you are supposed to be. What I see sitting across from me is a three-hundred-pound sack of shit that doesn’t have mind enough left to hold a conversation.”

Outraged, Evan attempted to stand, and Baskov slammed his hand down on the desk. “Sit the fuck down!”

Evan sat.

Baskov leaned forward. “You have no idea who you are talking to. You have no idea what I can do to your life if you’ve fucked this up somehow.” Baskov paused, his eyes two sighted gun barrels. “Now, I want you to think real hard, if you still can. I want you to explain to me why the new gladiator looks the way it looks. Why?”

Evan cleared his throat. He started to answer several times but each time thought better of it, struggling for a different way to phrase his response.

“Why?” Baskov shouted.

Evan flinched. “The computer designed the product based on the directives it was given. I don’t know what else to say. I really had nothing to do with the design at all. The computer did everything.”

“What were the directives?”

“Just a list of what they wanted the product to be able to do.”

“The product. You mean the gladiator.”

“Yeah, the product. The computer was supposed to design it for those specs.”

“Specifically, what were these specs?”

“I don’t remember. Um, let me look, I think I still may have a list around here somewhere.” Evan stood and ruffled through a stack of papers on top of a filing cabinet.

“You don’t have a software file on it?”

“I can’t seem to locate my laptop at the moment.”

Baskov watched the fat man root through his disorganized office. Baskov sat silently for five full minutes before rising and walking toward the door.

Evan felt a wave of relief at seeing the old man turn to leave. He’d already given up hope of finding the documents he sought, but he’d been too afraid of Baskov’s reaction to say so. The laptop might have been lost or thrown out weeks ago. Evan had no idea where it might be. He’d been losing things more and more often lately. He was slipping, and he knew it.

At the door Baskov turned. “How can we get the information out of the Brannin computer files?”

“There are no files, at least not in the sense that you mean. Everything is in V-space. Only one way to access memory. We’d have to start it up again, run the program.”

“With the per-minute cost, an unscheduled run isn’t going to happen,” Baskov said.

“Helix lab has copies, I’m sure.”

Baskov nodded, then turned and disappeared through the doorway.

A small kernel of hope formed somewhere in the back of Chandler’s mind. Maybe, he thought. Just maybe.

He thought of his computer. His precious V-space. There was a chance he might soon run his program again.

SILAS SHUFFLED through the massive stack of envelopes on his desk. The mail was mostly advertisements, though a few scientific magazines and professional letters were also sprinkled in. He came to the letter from his sister and put it aside. He would read that one later, at home.

He talked to her at least once a week on the phone and visited her every couple of months, but the letters were special to him. They would be filled with the layered minutiae of her everyday existence. She would tell him about the flower blooming outside her window, or the fight she had with her boss. Actual letters, in the old style. Paper you could hold in your hand. It would all be in there, laid down in lines, her life.

She’d started that when she’d first gone away to school, and then sporadically continued the habit for years until she married. Then the letters stopped for a while. After their mother died, the habit had returned, like some childhood habits will.

He didn’t write her back. But that was okay; she didn’t seem to expect it. She wrote because she needed to share her life with him, not because she needed a reciprocal share of his in return.

Their relationship was close, in its own particular way. Silas had always considered this a minor miracle, considering how far apart they lived and how different their lives were. That was a blessing he didn’t take for granted. His sister’s family was the only family he had. And except for Ben, the only real friends.

He wasn’t lonely. On a weekly basis, he interacted with hundreds of people, knew several dozen well—and when time allowed, he could always find somebody to talk to, catch lunch with, and even occasionally go out with on those rare evenings away from the lab.

But letting them inside was somewhat harder. That was something he’d never been good at, and now that he’d entered his forties, he felt that it had almost ceased to be a viable option.

He flipped the envelope over, and out slipped the usual family photo of his sister, her husband, and their son. They were an attractive family. The kind you might expect to see in prime-time sitcoms or ads about orange juice—the dad neat and professional, the mother beautiful, the son a mixture of the two in a smaller, smiling package. It felt good to look at them, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on why.

He put the envelope in his upper desk drawer and tried to summon the ambition to sift through the rest of the mail.